Cardboard Children – Robinson Crusoe

NOTE: This column was started a few weeks ago, long before the disappearance of the Malaysian flight MH370. While there is no reference to air disasters in the column (only my irrational fear of flying) I wanted to assure readers that this column wasn’t written in the wake of that incident. I’m sure everyone would join me in hoping for the best possible outcome for the families of the crew and passengers of MH370.

Hello youse.

Why have I waited so long to talk about Robinson Crusoe? Let me tell you why. Sometimes I worry that in the discussion of board games we dig too far down into the detail of the mechanics of these things. You do THIS and then you do THIS and then you do THAT. I constantly worry about how we talk about games, because I’m that kind of guy. A worrier and an idiot. Great games never really feel like a string of IF and THEN commands. They feel like a living story, a true experience. So I did something different with Robinson Crusoe. I played it and then I gave it some distance. Some months later, stranded across an expanse of time, I’m ready to tell you about it.


The beautiful thing about this process is that I’m working from memory. I’m probably going to get some details completely wrong. There’s stuff I can’t remember. But I’m hoping that my enthusiasm for what I played gives you a more real impression of the game.

We’re on a plane, me and you. We’re flying over an ocean. And as I look down, a little afraid (I’m not keen on flying), I am reminded of a board game I played recently. I turn to you to make some conversation.


I was just – I don’t know if you play board games, but – I was just looking down at the ocean and I was thinking… All of this is incredible, isn’t it? There’s a guy flying all of us over an ocean. We’re trusting that guy with that job. And we’re all just sitting here, trusting him to do that job. In a world as fucked up as this one is, a world where trust is in short supply, that’s pretty incredible, right?

I played, um… I played this game called Robinson Crusoe. It’s a co-operative game. So it isn’t like Monopoly or Cluedo or any of the games you might have played with your family. It’s a game where everyone works together as a team. Everyone tries to survive. We’re all stranded on an island, you see. And we’re trying to gather enough wood so that we can make a big fire to alert people to our presence, you know? In the hope we get rescued, you know? We all start together in one location, and there’s only so much work you can do every day. That makes sense, right? Everyone has to choose what they’re going to do.

You’d think we’d all be collecting wood, I know. But we have to eat too. And at the end of every day the weather can change. You need shelter and stuff. I mean – it’s all exactly like you’d imagine it would be if it happened in real life. What do we eat? Where do we sleep? What if it gets cold? You have to deal with all of that. I mean, you have to deal with all of that. You can die on that island. You probably will die on that island. Again and again. So you –

Yes, can I have a vodka and soda water, please? Thanks.

So you – yeah – you all need to choose what to do. You have two little tokens that you can spend to do stuff. So you can split them to do two different things, or combine both to do one thing, you know? So it’s like… It’d be like me saying “Hey, I’m going to go exploring for a bit, and then I’m going to fix the roof of the shelter.” But someone else – you – might say “Well, I’m going to spend the whole day just cleaning up around the camp, to raise morale.” And if you use both your tokens, that’s an automatic success. But it gets less done, you know? If you split your tokens, you have to make a successful roll to succeed and that’s when –

Thanks. No, that’s fine.

Yes, that’s when the shit can really hit the fan. The dice might make you draw a card. And those cards, man. That’s like – all of life is inside those decks of cards. All of the cruelty and horror of life. You might be doing some building and then you cut your leg. That can happen. And then that card can come back to haunt you later – your leg might get infected. Everything has consequences. I was playing and –

This vodka is strong.

I was playing and I was out exploring and – I had to draw a card. The card told me that I’d just seen this wild beast in the jungle. It was tracking me. And I had a choice. I could go back to camp, and risk the animal following me back, or I could stay outside the camp all night long. Exposed. Can you believe that? And the other players all like – COME HOME/STAY OUT THERE. And me in the middle of all that. A potentially game-ending decision.

How does that work? Well – if I’d decided to go back to the camp, I’d have to shuffle that card into an event deck that we all draw from every turn. That puts the wild animal in there, waiting. We know that it has our scent. It’s incredible, really. I’m talking about –

Here’s the thing. I’m talking about one card here. There are hundreds of cards in that game. You can get depressed in the game. Can you believe that? You can draw a card that makes your group of survivors lose hope. And you need to deal with that shit. It’s not gamey. It doesn’t feel like, you know – “Oh, such and such has to roll a 6 so that he can move again.” It’s more like “Oh shit, we have to spend some time together as a group, cheering each other up, singing songs, just so that we can maybe be productive tomorrow.” It’s really affecting.

It’s a hard game, man. Hard. So hard. “We need to fix up the shelter.” “We need to move the camp.” “We need to make some tools.” “We need to hunt for food.” “We need to deal with whatever the fuck is watching us from those trees.” “We’ve all been poisoned.” It’s brutal. And yet it’s all in your hands, you know? It’s all about keeping a cool head and staying positive. It’s about taking risks too. Flying in this plane feels like a risk to me, you know? I’m scared of flying, so it always feels like a risk. I know that it isn’t a risk, statistically. But it feels like one. A risk/reward thing. And playing this game is the same. You’re just in your living room, at a table, playing a game. It’s not life or death. But the risks feel like risks. The tension is unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

Mm? No, I don’t think it would ever get boring. There are so many different things that can happen that it’s different every time. But it feels like a game sandbox too, you know? There are six scenarios in the box, with different themes. One that feels like a horror film, with cannibals and cultists and crucifixes. One that feels like Indiana Jones. There’s so much you can do with the game, if you wanted to.

It’s weird to play a game that sets out to kill you. That’s what Robinson Crusoe does. It sets out to kill you. It sets out to recreate the chaos of nature. The randomness of life. So many other games are all “Place this here and collect X victory points.” Robinson Crusoe just says “Life is hard, and you being alive right now is a miracle. At the flip of a card, you are FUCKED.” You’ll look across the table at the other players and you’ll see an understanding there.

We’re all just spending time and rolling dice, I suppose.

Yeah man, sure. Get some sleep. I’ll just –

Man, we are up high, huh?”


  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Whatever happened to the Midnight Table?

    I like these articles, but think it’s shame it suddenly vanished.

  2. Everyone says:

    Vodka and soda eh? Interesting. I’ll try it sometime.

    • Swanny says:

      You can mix almost anything and soda, and it turns out pretty nice. Been doing that with amaretto lately.

  3. X_kot says:

    I have yet to sit next to someone on a plane who wanted to speak more than five words, let alone about games. But, that said, this is a great simulation of how to talk about games without basing it purely on mechanics. Immerse me in the theme, even if it is Super Worker Placement 7! Give me a sense of what is at stake – what is the conflict that drives the players? Robinson Crusoe has its flaws (e.g, confusing manual, filling-buckets syndrome), but by gar does it deliver scenarios ripe with tension.

    Also, thank you for the nota bene. I agree that the premise of the article might be triggering for some.

  4. Tiax says:


  5. kwyjibo says:

    That’s the best trigger warning I’ve seen in a while.

  6. Jac says:

    This irrational fear of flying you have sounds an awful lot like my rational fear of flying. I’d get that checked out if I were you.

    • The Random One says:

      I think he just essentially turned anyone’s irrational fear of flying into a rational fear of flying. I mean, do you think pilots are particularly trustworthy? What has a pilot done for you lately?

    • Wisq says:

      Your fear of flying is only rational if you also have a fear of driving/riding in cars, because you’re far more likely to be injured or killed per hour driving than flying.

  7. Scurra says:

    In the end, it was indeed the very scale of the possible “randomness” that put me off this game after a few runs. Whilst the premise is very, very solid, and the brutality is properly harsh, it’s the complete inability to even begin to plan that makes the experience less and less enjoyable each time because there was no sense of progress. And whilst I realise that that’s kind of the point – a good co-op game should kill you many, many times – here there is a sense that it doesn’t really matter what you do because your success or failure feels predestined instead of under your own control simply because of the combination of dice and a ridiculously large cardpool (so there is little coherent way of evolving an approach beyond some alarmingly obvious basics.)
    It’s still way better than most games, but for me it definitely had a sense of Shadows Over Camelot about it – the poster-child for the game that you play maybe ten times and then never play again because it is so much shallower than it pretends to be.

    • alh_p says:

      I share some of these frustrations/concerns about Robinson although my main problem is that it’s so damn hard that it puts people off. I think that kind of “against the odds” or 1 in 10 victory is fine with a single player PC game (e.g. Hotline Miami) but Robinson requires such investment and can really dick you over in a very short space of time that I have a hard time convincing people to play it again.

      For instance, my experiences of the first scenario (castaway, where you need to build a large log pile for a beacon) are that the minute you feel you are doing ok, breaking even or have established some sort of stable food supply, you get shafted – either by weather, or some other “fun” event. The way to avoid being shafted is to have encountered the problem before – which sadly is a pretty nurgatory way to drive replayability as it depends on your motivation and resilience to break through the repeated failures.

      You need a thick skin to be friends with this game, that’s for sure. Either that or leave it a while after playing it before writing, as Rab has done :)

      I guess my closest experience to this game in PC terms is Dwarf fortress. It has a very strong sense of “fun” as well as a lot of frankly menial tasks (unlike minecraft where only the first few nights have any real jeopardy), where things can very rapidly degenerate. The pacing of Robinson is perhaps more arbitrary though – depending on the scenario (and previous experience of it) you may know what to expect, but equally, shit just happens and you can’t do a thing about it.

      • LCinn says:

        I have to disagree with the complaints about the inability to plan and the difficulty. First, on the difficulty: out of about 20 games, we have lost 1. And this wasn’t because we were lucky, we’ve had runs of horrible, horrible luck. But we pulled through in the end. And why? Exactly because we knew how to plan. The game is *all* about having a long term plan. The hardship and difficulty comes in the tiny details, in the roll of the dice. And the secret? They hardly matter. We pretty much roll the dice on every action, and get unlucky often enough , but because we have an overarching purpose, we pull through.

        In fact, I’d say the only real challenge of the game is in coming up with that plan. So much, that it actually hurts replayability for me. We know the sequence of priority shifts necessary to complete every scenario except the cannibal one (we only played that once so far, that was the game we lost). And because we do, we win. Every time. And we got them all on the first try, which actually suggests to me that the game is actually a bit too easy once you figure out how to deal with it.

        So while I’m disagreeing with the complaints about randomness and difficulty, that isn’t really in the game’s favor. I still enjoy the random awesome that the `adventure’ decks throw up, and the feeling of progression in going from helpless castaways to capable survivors. But I never worry about if we will win, and there is only very limited flexibility in how a specific scenario will play out. The dice and adventures just add noise, but the signal stays the same. None of them actually drastically change what you need to do, which is a shame.

  8. P7uen says:

    Rab makes me want to actually make some friends purely so I can play board games.

  9. ben_reck says:

    Scurra’s warning aside, I’d still want to try this game. I wouldn’t mind so much if the sheer number of cards prevents mastery and promotes chaos. That’s what makes the stories.

    • jrod says:

      You will like this one then… it is one of the better story generators I have ever played. Even in death there is much Fun to be had with your main main mr. rob cru

      • Shadow says:

        “Even in death there is much Fun to be had(…)”

        Sounds like a Fun Dreadnought! Funnought? Dreadfun?